Sebastopol mobile home park tests new model low-income housing

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Yvette Morris was just starting a tour for two visitors Wednesday when she was overcome by emotion, tears flowing down her face as she asked: “May I show you around my home?”

Morris is a year and a half into her stay at Sebastopol’s Park Village, a city-owned mobile home park that has been transitioned into a unique hybrid housing model, accommodating both longtime residents and, at present, 14 formerly homeless people whose rent is subsidized by the city.

For Morris, 54, who was previously living in a broken-down motor home parked on the street, the project means a warm, secure home, one she keeps immaculate. It’s made a big difference in her life.

“People who are homeless need help,” she said. “If it weren’t for this place, I don’t know where I’d be. Probably dead.”

The housing project at the east edge of town, on the banks of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, is the result of a partnership between the city and West County Community Services, a nonprofit social services agency that manages the mobile home park, owned by the city since 2007.

Prior to the project, which began in 2017, there were 18 occupied mobile home pads and 8 unoccupied, as well as four vacant apartments. Over the past two years, trailers have been moved onto the free sites for the new residents, including Morris, who was one of the first occupants under the program.

The apartments are being renovated for rent to formerly homeless people later this year. Two additional trailer sites are also going to be added later this year.

Wednesday, city officials, West County Community staff members and advocates of the project gathered to celebrate the installation of a new meeting hall and social center on the site.

Though still relatively new, the initiative is being hailed by supporters as a low-cost solution for housing some of the area’s most financially vulnerable residents. They envision it as a model that could be replicated on other vacant, publicly owned land in Sonoma County.

“It’s an inexpensive way to get people housed really rapidly and then have on-site services like we have,” said Debra Johnson, board president of the West County Community Services. “There’s a need for that type of a situation.”

Morris is not alone in her appreciation of Park Village, a half-century old mobile home community once reputed for drug use and disorder despite its pastoral surroundings at the Laguna’s edge.

Another of the new tenants, James Lydecker, 55, lost his rented Roseland-area home and all of his belongings in a fire two years ago. He slept in a field for two years before he was invited to make his home at a spot in Park Village. He’s amazed by quiet of the neighborhood.

Another resident, a 47-year-old woman who gave her name only as Suzi, said she had been living in a broken down trailer on a property in Occidental. She paid $850 a month — most of her monthly disability check.

The trailer had no heat or water, and the door wouldn’t stay shut, so she slept with a knife. “It was not safe,” she said.

“They’ve really made a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

As it has for more than half a century, Park Village — formerly Village Mobile Home Park — still functions as a mobile home park for 18 other families, or 71 people, who reside on its 4 acres off Highway 12, at the edge of Tomodachi Park.

Since mid-2017, the eight sites have been reserved for formerly homeless families living in new and quality used trailers and fifth-wheels hooked up to city sewer, water and electrical power.

Those residents pay no more than a third of their monthly income for rent and utilities. The park is in a flood zone just off the Laguna. Having units on wheels means they can be towed out quickly in the event the water rises.

The project has a resident manager and a full-time case manager who works on-site to help clients stabilize their lives, connecting them with employment assistance, social services, addiction treatment, legal aid and whatever else they may need, said Tim Miller, executive director of West County Community Services.

In December, a portable construction trailer was installed as the community hall, providing an office for a case worker, a computer lab with internet access and meeting space.

No limits exist for tenant stays, though five once-homeless residents already have moved on to more independent living situations, Miller said.

The case manager also provides what Miller called “lighter touch” supportive services for the other mobile home residents who may need them.

For Marjorie Wallace, 92, a widow and park resident for 50 years whose needs have become more complicated with each year, that extra support has been vital.

“I love this place,” said Wallace.

The property is part of a 13-acre site acquired by the city 12 years ago as part of a long-term plan to build a public park at the edge of the Laguna. A campground adjoining the mobile home park was closed down to create Tomodachi Park with the expectation that the mobile homes would eventually be vacated and that site developed.

But complications in those plans, coupled with a regional housing crisis, caused the city to change course to preserve what little housing is available in Sebastopol for extremely low-income people. The transition also took shape amid rising homelessness countywide.

The city has spent about $237,000 on capital improvements for Park Village, including fencing, renovation of the manager’s apartment and office, demolition of an old community building, utility upgrades and a new concrete slab for the community building. It also has budgeted about $95,000 annually for operations over the past three years, basically covering salaries.

West County Community Services has raised $445,000 from private entities, including $319,000 from the Partnership HealthPlan of California and $65,000 from the Palm Drive Health Care District for infrastructure, including the community hall, and new trailer spaces and renovated apartments coming online later this year. The four apartments will be remodeled into two, two-bedroom units.

Nathan Burson, 36, has lived at Park Village since the age of 3 and is now raising is own small children, ages 2 and 3, in the mobile home his father owns. He remembers the different eras the community has experienced — from well-maintained to drug-infested and back again.

It’s not perfect now, but his complaints “are minimal,” he said.

“It’s nice to know it’s finally safe,” he said. “Growing up, I wanted to raise my kids here. And now, I can.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.

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